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    Laugh in Translation: Shanghainese Comedy Stands Up to the Mainstream

    Amid a surge of interest in local culture, young Chinese are reconnecting with their heritage through stand-up comedy in various dialects. Comedians are now drawing packed houses and even taking their acts overseas.

    SHANGHAI — As Yang Mengqi stepped onto the stage for her first stand-up show in Shanghainese, nervous questions swirled in her head: Would her jokes land, or would the nuances of a dialect rarely used in stand-up trip her up in front of a curious Shanghai crowd?

    “I kept thinking about what I should say, what jokes to tell, how to arrange them, and how to interact with the audience,” Yang, known by her stage name Norah, tells Sixth Tone. “I never had to think so much when doing stand-up in Mandarin or English.”

    To her relief, the show not only ended successfully but sparked a series of performances. Since that first show last October, SpicyComedy, the stand-up club Yang founded, has held Shanghainese performances twice a month in Shanghai to packed houses. And in March, the team took the show overseas to Chinese communities in Australia.

    “The shows in Shanghainese sold out faster than those in Mandarin and English,” says Yang, who rose to national fame after appearing on a popular comedy reality show in 2020.

    Fueled by a recent surge in interest from young Chinese looking to engage with and understand local culture and language, dialects are in the midst of a renaissance across China. While popular media such as the film “B for Busy” and Wong Kar-wai’s TV series “Blossoms Shanghai” have played a key role, the revival extends to social media, where short videos of comedians performing in Shanghainese are sparking widespread discussions.

    With Mandarin, compulsory in education since 1956, serving as the principal language across China, many young Chinese prioritize Mandarin and English for their broader utility in a globalized society. This shift has led to a decline in the use of local dialects like Shanghainese, which are perceived as less practical for wider communication.

    Cao Yixia, a researcher at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, says popular films and TV dramas that reflect cultural values play a key role in attracting audiences and creating a sense of connection and fandom.

    She adds that dialects have always been an important part of local culture, seen in things like slogans on canvas bags. “Combined with the unique charm of stand-up comedy, this mix is especially popular with young people,” says Cao.

    Qian Shengdong, 37, known online as “G Sengdong,” recalls the uncertainty he faced when he ventured into Shanghainese stand-up comedy in 2020, given Mandarin’s dominance.

    But four years on, Qian says Shanghainese stand-up shows are drawing full houses. And with new performers emerging, he believes demand for dialect content is growing, even beyond Shanghai.

    “Dialects are vivid, and slang brings more punchlines, connecting with the audience emotionally,” he says. “The same sentence might be ordinary in Mandarin, but when delivered in Shanghainese, it’s funny and easily triggers laughter.”

    This trend isn’t confined to Shanghainese alone. Stand-up comedy in other dialects, such as Cantonese and Sichuanese, is also gaining popularity across China. The success of these shows often hinges on the number of dialect speakers and the regional appeal of stand-up comedy.

    Despite the growing enthusiasm, many say the transition hasn’t been easy. Comedians must connect with audiences who may not be familiar with the dialect, and they often face criticism from the “dialect police,” pedants who scrutinize the authenticity of their pronunciation and usage, particularly on social media.

    But Cao believes that utilization and innovation are among the most effective ways to preserve dialects, and performing arts often serve as a platform for these two methods.

    “Art usually starts in niche and non-mainstream areas, but when this art truly becomes popular and mainstream, it forms a social culture, and may even evolve into a new era of folklore,” says Cao.

    ‘Hard mode’

    Yang ventured into Shanghainese comedy after her parents and a friend urged her to explore new territory. Until then, she’d only performed in Mandarin and English, and despite her initial hesitation and “risk-averse” nature, she decided to test the waters.

    Such was her trepidation that she first organized a small, experimental open mic to see if stand-up could work in Shanghainese. After two successful trial shows, she realized that her jokes, whether adapted from Mandarin or created on the spot, could indeed resonate in the dialect.

    “We made the right decision,” says Yang. “Many seek a sense of identity with Shanghainese or Shanghai culture. There is curiosity, expectation, and public sentiment towards this culture, so performing in Shanghainese makes perfect sense.”

    Yang’s nerves stemmed from the unique challenges of performing in Shanghainese. Many expressions in Mandarin and English lack direct equivalents in the dialect, including everyday phrases such as “welcome everyone” and “this is the schedule for our shows.”

    At her first performance, she discovered that certain formal and ceremonial words, which she calls “performance formal language,” needed to be prepared in advance to avoid sounding out of place. “Some phrases sounded awkward in Shanghainese too and had to be expressed in Mandarin or English, such as ‘this is our next performer,’” she says.

    When they took the act to Australia, Yang found that audiences showed greater enthusiasm for the dialect compared to those in China, mainly because it evoked a sense of home. “Even before any jokes, everyone was already very excited,” she recalls. “There’s a sense of pride from home, and bringing so many people together like this feels incredible.”

    According to Yang, Shanghainese performances, where younger attendees often bring their parents along, attract a slightly older demographic compared to Mandarin or English shows. “My parents have seen many of my Shanghainese performances and often brought friends,” says Yang. “They feel more relaxed speaking in dialect, while Mandarin feels a bit more formal.”

    She explains that jokes about exams and job hunting may seem distant to older audiences, finding that stories about marital life or raising children resonate more.

    At her Shanghainese stand-up shows, Yang admits that a few audience members often do not understand Shanghainese. “They attend the shows to feel the atmosphere, and some non-locals are even willing to sit in the front row,” she says, describing their experience as trying “hard mode.”

    Gong Jiayu, a 26-year-old from northern China’s Shanxi province working in Shanghai, believes watching Shanghainese stand-up comedy has helped her connect better with the city. Curious to explore the local dialect, Gong found a sense of familiarity in the expressions used, helping her grasp the humor through the performers’ delivery, even without speaking the dialect.

    Voice from the past

    Beyond non-native speakers, Yang asserts that the renewed interest in Shanghainese culture helps locals who have yet to learn the dialect. “Some parents even ask us to teach their kids Shanghainese,” she says.

    Shanghainese vlogger Qian concurs, saying: “Children start speaking Mandarin in kindergarten, continue at home with their parents, and even resist when asked to speak Shanghainese.”

    However, in recent years, the generational gap in dialect culture has narrowed. “Many young Shanghainese begin to feel a sense of identity at university, realizing they should speak the dialect, especially when classmates from other places ask them to teach some phrases and they find they can’t, which motivates them to learn,” explains Qian.

    Zhang Tongyan, a university student born in Shanghai, says her grandparents and parents speak Shanghainese, and she understands it without often speaking it at home. “Though I’m not fluent, stand-up comedy has given me a sense of the authentic expressions used and the older generation’s stories,” she says.

    Shanghainese stand-up often includes playful jokes about different dialect accents and region-related humor, which Zhang sees as distinct characteristics of this comedy style.

    For example, local audiences often get jokes about the “upper corners” and “lower corners,” which refer to areas within or outside the inner and outer ring roads. “People from Chongming or Fengxian (in Shanghai’s outskirts) might joke that they’re not true Shanghainese. These jokes might be offensive to others, but stand-up comedy sometimes involves offense,” says Zhang.

    Shanghai native Chen Yuxuan believes stereotypes about Shanghainese people being “exclusive” are common and may be linked to the Shanghainese dialect. “The dialect can be sarcastic, funny, and somehow sharp while also having a touch of gentleness,” the 20-year-old says.

    But performers, too, walk a thin line while working in dialects. An imperfect Shanghainese accent often draws criticism from online critics.

    “There’s a lot of ‘dialect policing’ these days, which is harsh on us Shanghainese people,” rues Qian. “This is quite unbalanced and … creates a barrier for creators like me who want to popularize Shanghainese and discourages young people from speaking it.”

    Yang chooses to ignore these online critiques. She believes that the authenticity of her Shanghainese does not affect her performance because the live audience is immersed in the emotions of the moment.

    “It doesn’t matter what you say, it matters more how you feel; the audience’s feelings are more important than the comedian’s accent,” she asserts.

    The mix is the message

    Even within Shanghai, different accents exist. According to Cao Yixia from the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, Shanghainese originated from the Songjiang dialect, which was similar to what was used in Zhejiang during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). And after Shanghai opened as a port in 1843, a large influx of immigrants from the nearby eastern provinces of Zhejiang and Jiangsu significantly influenced the dialect.

    In urban Shanghai, the Shanghainese dialect is considered “accent-free.” However, suburban areas often have mixed accents from Jiangsu or Zhejiang, making them harder for inner-city dwellers to distinguish.

    “This can lead to mutual disdain between locals and suburbanites, which stand-up comedy often uses as material for jokes,” says Yang Sijie (not related to Yang Mengqi), who’s from Jiading in Shanghai’s outskirts.

    Yet, Yang Sijie doesn’t find such jokes offensive. “These differences have been internalized into different jokes or memes, which shows Shanghai’s strong diversity,” she says. “Stand-up is not about attacking any group but about presenting real life in a humorous way.”

    To speak more authentic Shanghainese, Qian has consulted professional teachers and scholars and often refers to the official Shanghainese Dictionary. “Many non-native and young Shanghai residents who are not fluent in Shanghainese have told me that they can now understand and speak a bit of the dialect,” says Qian.

    Performing in Shanghainese has brought Yang Mengqi new recognition. Previously, after appearing on the reality show, her parents’ friends would say, “Your daughter is doing pretty well.” Now, they say, “Your daughter’s stand-up is incredible.”

    Yang also hopes to make SpicyComedy an international and multilingual brand, believing that focusing on smaller languages like the Shanghainese dialect will fill a gap in the comedy market.

    In May, Qian released a new video titled “Painless Learning Shanghainese” to generate more interest in the dialect. He has also collaborated with local musicians to make a documentary and music video of a Shanghainese pop song called “Shanghai Love Story,” inspired by Gabriel García Márquez’s “Love in the Time of Cholera.”

    Qian hopes to see more vloggers promoting the Shanghai dialect. In 2017, he was one of the few doing so, but now there are hundreds, with at least 10 leading the way. Most create lighthearted content in Shanghainese, focusing on Shanghai culture, its people, social issues, and current events.

    Yang Mengqi sees Shanghainese stand-up comedy not just as a fleeting trend but a valuable, untapped resource. She says, “This industry won’t disappear until the acts who perform Shanghainese stand-up comedy literally drop dead from exhaustion.”

    Additional reporting: Zhu Haijia; editor: Apurva.

    (Header image: A group photo after a stand-up show produced by SpicyComedy. From @门腔伐 on Weibo)